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Film Feature: The 10 Best Muppet Movies Ever Made

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CHICAGO – After unleashing the most aggressive and exuberantly playful marketing campaign in recent memory, “The Muppets” is gearing to take over Thanksgiving weekend.

Yet since Jim Henson’s brilliant and beloved creations haven’t been given a decent vehicle in nearly two decades, Muppet fans are holding their collective breath that director James Bobin’s musical comedy will be a much-belated return to form. Co-writer/star Jason Segel’s passion for Henson’s original vision is mightily encouraging, though veteran Muppeteer Frank Oz’s negative reaction to the script appears to be a bad omen.

Regardless, this latest cinematic effort has the power to introduce new generations to Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, and the entire legacy of Henson’s groundbreaking work. His ingenious fusions of puppetry, marionettes and animatronics had remarkable screen presence that rivaled the charisma and nuances of any human co-star. The Muppeteers respected their characters as individuals and never treated them as mere caricatures. It was Henson’s intention for each Muppet to reflect universally relatable aspects of the human psyche: Kermit’s plucky ambition and frustrated disillusionment, Fozzie’s neurotic need to please, Piggy’s insecurity and self-absorption, Big Bird’s childlike naïvité, Oscar the Grouch’s self-satisfied pessimism. Add all the Muppets together, and they equal a fully textured human being.

Though Henson was focused primarily on pushing the technical boundaries in each successive picture by making the Muppets appear to inhabit real-world settings, what continues to resonate are the chemistry and relationships between these handcrafted yet fully realized beings. What’s especially striking about the finest Muppet features is their intensely personal nature. Instead of preaching sickly sweet morals, they embody Henson’s optimistic worldview and vision of a society where man and nature learned to live in harmony. Kermit’s desire to make “millions of people happy” paralleled Henson’s goal to have audiences believe in the “magic” he created, thus allowing adults to connect with their inner youth. There was a purity to Henson’s work that is entirely lost in today’s franchise-driven family entertainment overrun with irony and cynicism. There was absolutely nothing ironic about Henson’s love of humanity and belief in the vitality of the imagination.

Since there are only a handful of theatrically released Muppet features to rank and the new film is essentially about the history of The Muppets, HollywoodChicago has decided to play the music, light the lights and count down the top ten Muppet movies of all time. With the exception of the first two misguided titles, these pictures are all must-sees, well worth checking out on DVD. They also prove that Bobin and Segal have major flippers to fill…

10. “Muppets From Space” (1999)

Muppets From Space
Muppets From Space
Photo credit: Disney

We begin with the picture that “The Muppets” has wisely set out to distance itself from as far as possible. It was the final big screen vehicle for Kermit and the gang before a series of increasingly-awful TV specials that bent over backwards to make the Muppets appear “hip.” Director Tim Hill (who went on to helm “Alvin and the Chipmunks”) clearly had no idea what made the Muppets appealing in the first place. He stages an opening dance sequence set to The Commodores’ “Brick House” (one of several uninspired song choices) that culminates with Kermit exclaiming, “Way to get down with your bad selves” [insert nauseated groan here]. The plot centers on Gonzo (still played to this day by the tireless Dave Goelz) and his pursuit to connect with the alien community from whence he came. It’s hard to believe that this soulless sci-fi parody was somehow inspired by Paul Williams’ soulful tune, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” in the original “Muppet Movie.” In his final theatrical bow as Piggy, Oz does what he can with the nearly laughless script that depicts his bovine diva as an opportunistic anchorwoman (there’s admittedly one funny moment when she freezes on-camera). As for Kermit, he’s been reduced to a bland placeholder for Hallmark-level warmth and wisdom. Yet the most glaring vexation of all is Pepe the Prawn (Bill Barretta), an insufferable, Jar Jar Binks-like camera hog who seems to have been created for the sole purpose of injecting innuendo into the proceedings. And despite the writers’ efforts to send-up every sci-fi blockbuster under the sun, they failed to include a single “Pigs in Space” reference.

9. “Muppet Treasure Island” (1996)

Muppets Treasure Island
Muppets Treasure Island
Photo credit: Disney

Here’s where it all went wrong. Director Brian Henson (son of Jim) attempted to borrow the formula from his successful 1992 version of “A Christmas Carol” and apply it to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, yet the morose material proves to be an ill fit for the Muppets’ sunny charm. All attempts to lighten the mood with screwball humor devolve into shrill slapstick. As Long John Silver, Tim Curry isn’t charming or creepy enough to satisfy on any level. He flashes his trademark Cheshire-like grin, but there’s little joy beneath it. The same could be said for the entire enterprise, which lumbers along for an hour and forty minutes without ever truly engaging the viewers. The pacing is off and even the most promising gags fail to build into a memorable sketch. What saves the picture from disaster is the redeeming chemistry between Steve Whitmire (as Kermit) and Oz, who doesn’t materialize as Piggy until the last act, but still manages to steal the show. In fact, all the best bits are saved for the final half hour, such as when Kermit gallantly swishes his sword in a ridiculous battle with Curry. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s songs are thoroughly forgettable, though there’s something touchingly bittersweet about their romantic refrain, “Love Led Us Here,” particularly in the way it’s performed by Kermit and Piggy as they hang suspended from a rope over a watery grave. Love did indeed lead the Muppeteers to this precipice, but by the time this picture was released, there was nothing left to save them from the inevitable fall.

8. “The Dark Crystal” (1982)

The Dark Crystal
The Dark Crystal
Photo credit: Disney

And now for a quantum leap in quality. Henson’s artistic ambition was too restless to settle for the realms of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” He truly believed that puppetry could be utilized in any genre, and set out to win over new moviegoers with this visionary fantasy devoid of kid-friendly cuddliness. It’s a flawed effort overall, but there are several images and sequences that prove to be unforgettable. Brian Froud’s conceptual art served as the chief inspiration for Henson’s strikingly detailed and often grotesque creatures. The plot is a mishmash of familiar tropes and Jungian archetypes, with a narrator bluntly identifying wide-eyed hero Jen the Gelfling as “the Chosen One.” A cracked sacred crystal has thrust the world into darkness and gloom, while splitting its inhabitants into groups of good (Mystics) and evil (Skeksis). Perhaps Henson was further encouraged by Oz and George Lucas’ success with Yoda in “The Empire Strike Back,” thus giving him the necessary momentum to tackle such a sprawling, Lucas-like epic. The biggest flaws in the film are the eerily hollow Gelflings, whose immobile features are only as expressive as early motion capture. Their shortcomings are all the more disappointing in light of the tremendous care and detail put into the look of their co-stars. There’s a staggering sequence set in a planetarium containing a towering, whirring model of the Heavens. Though the story isn’t played for laughs, it is bolstered by a few whimsical flourishes, such as the adorable, dog-like character of Fizzgig (played by Goelz), a ball of fuzz with a nervous little face that breaks out into a gaping mouth. Yet what really brings the entire project together is the moody, haunting score by Trevor Jones, which remains one of the most under-appreciated in the history of cinema.

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